Why Decriminalization Will Save Lives


Episode 3

Jag Davies

In this episode of The Third Wave Podcast, we talk to Jag Davies from the Drug Policy Alliance, and learn about why the legalization of psychedelics requires an open dialogue around the harms of criminalization. Jag tells us that if we rely on the approval of psychedelic therapy, psychedelics may only become available for a privileged few, continuing the marginalization of those who have been left behind by decades of prohibition.

Podcast Highlights

Jag Davies is the Director of Communications Strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, and has previously worked for MAPS as their Director of Communications from 2003-2007.

Jag recently spoke at the Horizons conference in New York, where he discussed a problem in the psychedelic movement. The DPA believes that putting too much emphasis on the approval of psychedelic therapy will leave behind marginalized people in society, and won’t do enough on its own to change the criminal status of psychedelic use. Jag believes that we have to take into account the harms of prohibition, and think about reducing prohibition-related harms for everyone, not just the wealthy people who could afford psychedelic therapy.

Jag points out that right now, only around 10% of people are in support of the full legalization of psychedelics. He believes that the approval of psychedelic therapy will not be enough to overturn the anti-drug majority. However, he says that around 60% of people (from polls in primary states) support ending arrests for drug use. The support for decriminalization is bipartisan, too, and he points out the support in republican states for marijuana legalization in the recent election. He believes that this shows people are willing to consider decriminalization, or reducing criminalisation-related harms, as a first step towards legalization.

Jag mentions that decriminalization and the approval of therapy aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. He believes that growing public support for decriminalization can help the approval of psychedelic therapy. He worries that pushing for psychedelic therapy alone without considering public support of decriminalization will only result in a continuation of the arrests, incarcerations and persecutions of marginalized groups caused by prohibition.

The most important place to start, Jag believes, is in institutions that employ zero-tolerance practices. Universities, nightclubs, festivals… these places are responsible for a large amount of prohibition-related harm. A couple of years ago, the DPA started the Safer Partying Campaign, which aims to publicize projects like the Zendo Project; groups that provide harm reduction services in zero-tolerance institutions. On-site drug testing is a big focus of this initiative, and recently DPA partnered with Insomniac Productions (one of the largest event production companies in the US) to implement drug testing services at their events. These approaches will highlight to people the harm of prohibition, and the benefits that can be achieved through harm reduction and decriminalization.

The pattern of prohibition and prohibition-related harms has been seen before, especially with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Jag believes that for people to see the parallels between psychedelic prohibition and alcohol prohibition, we need to start changing the perceptions surrounding psychedelics. He illustrates how much fear and stigma still surrounds psychedelics with a recent poll; only 16% of the US electorate believe that psychedelics can be used safely. This is not much better than their views on heroin and cocaine! Prohibition and the drug war have scared people into believing myths, and we still have a lot of work to do to get people aware of the truth.

Jag discusses how marijuana legalization has had an easier time than psychedelics, simply because so many people use it. It was easier to break down the myths of marijuana use when people could see for themselves that it was not harmful. That helped the approval of medical marijuana, and led together to legalization. With psychedelics, so few people use them that we have to work harder. People need to talk about their psychedelic use, and especially those who would not risk losing their jobs and children, or gaining a criminal record. These privileged few who are free to talk about their psychedelic use need to do so, and need to do it in a tactful way, that encourages people to reconsider the myths around psychedelic use. Even if people don’t agree that psychedelic use is for them, everyone should be able to agree that prohibition is harmful and wrong.

In light of the recent election, Jag says that we must fight even harder to prevent the government using drugs as a scapegoat. Even though republicans voted for medical marijuana, it’s possible that the government will try to demonize psychedelic use as the Nixon/Reagan administrations did in the 60s and 70s. Jag recommends the works of Dr Carl Hart, especially his book ‘High Price’, which looks at how drug use is often just a scapegoat for economical and societal issues. Now, with our dire economical situation and climate of fear, we could be in for another campaign against drugs. Jag says that we have to use our best tools; free communication and information, people’s distaste for mass incarceration, the facts about the harms of criminalisation… then we can begin to repair the untold harms of prohibition, and work towards building a new world where our policies reflect our values, and marginalized people have the same rights as the privileged.

Podcast Transcript

00:29 Paul Austin: Hi, listeners and welcome back to the Psychedelia Podcast. I'm your host, Paul Austin. And we have as always another great guest on the show for you. His name is Jag Davies. He is the Director of Communications Strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance. And he used to be the Director of Communications for MAPS from 2003 to 2007. So a little bit more specific to the psychedelic world. And I had most recently spoke to Jag at the Horizons conference in New York about five or six weeks ago, and I wanted to get him on the show to just hear about his story with psychedelics and hear about how that has influenced his work and what he's doing with the Drug Policy Alliance and also his thoughts about psychedelic eventual legalization, especially now with what we've seen in the recent election with all the marijuana legalization in places like California, Massachusetts and whatnot. So, Jag, thanks so much for coming on the show.

01:25 Jag Davies: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

01:27 PA: Yeah, it was really great to talk to you at Horizons. We had a very, very good conversation. Can you tell our listeners just what did you think of Horizons and the conference itself? What were your impressions of it?

01:40 JD: Well, it's a really fantastic conference. It's the longest running psychedelics conference on the East Coast. And it's really been a nice community gathering for bringing people together. Well, what I think the conference really underlined for me was the limits of the medicalization approach to psychedelics. The vast majority of resources in the psychedelics movement has gone towards legalizing psychedelic therapy, which is really important and really impressive work, but I think it's important for people to understand, who care about this issue, that legalizing psychedelic therapy would not change the facts that psychedelics are criminalized in our society and only certain people will be able to benefit from the legalization of psychedelic therapy. Having a therapist take care of you for that long is quite expensive, it would be prohibitive for many people of lesser means. And I think most people who support groups like MAPS and the Heffter Research Institute would, ideally, like to be able to use psychedelics outside of government-sanctioned medically supervised settings without being considered a criminal, without being under the threat of being handcuffed, arrested, given a lifelong criminal record, and even locked up in many instances, simply for using a psychedelic.

03:24 JD: And so I think it's really important at this point now that there's been so much positive media coverage and drug policy reform more broadly has become such a mainstream issue, that's got a lot of political traction on both sides of the aisle, it's very important for the psychedelic community to think through how we can not just create these new models for psychedelic therapy but how we can also repair the harms of psychedelic prohibition. Someone, a prominent person in the psychedelic research community who I was talking to before my talk at Horizons, said something to me, like, "But people don't get arrested for psychedelics, do they?" And that just kind of shocked me. There unfortunately, is not very good data about that, but we know there are at least, there's thousands of people arrested every year for psychedelics, especially once you include MDMA. And those people are disproportionately the more marginalized in our society. People who are not white are much more likely to get searched and stopped and arrested, much more likely to be younger people. So I think it's really an important moment for the psychedelic research community to reflect on their privilege, and who is benefiting from the policy changes that they're enacting.

04:51 JD: And I was really surprised. I was surprised in some ways at the dissonance at the conference, and that a lot of the younger people at the conference, especially people who are not white, were really, really happy to hear my talk, and came up to me afterwards and said how conflicted they felt about being part of this movement because of these issues. While on the other hand, I think a lot of the leaders in the movement and the researchers, there's a certain obliviousness there. And I think, a lot of the leaders in the psychedelic research movement are very good at framing their goals in terms of social justice, and healing social trauma, and shifting human consciousness, and all these these lofty ideals.

05:42 JD: But when you actually look at where the money, where the resources, where the attention is going, it's almost entirely going towards this one approach of legalizing psychedelic therapy within the mainstream medical system. And of course, we all know the mainstream medical system in the US is not... It's got a lot of problems. And with the current political climate, it could be in for a lot more problems. So I think it really highlighted for me the need to build a more diverse and more sustainable psychedelic movement that takes into account the historic harms of psychedelic prohibition. It's important to remember, going back further, prohibition is rooted in colonialism and the suppression of indigenous cultures. And it would just be really a shame if we ended up in a situation where psychedelics become legal in these very limited contexts for wealthy, white people in the north while the communities that have historically been harmed the most by colonialism and prohibition continue to suffer those harms.

07:01 PA: Now, that brings up a really interesting point and really a lot of you just said focused on was this relationship between legalizing for psychedelic therapy purposes which tends to be... It's suited to benefit people who are from a more privileged situation, people who tend to be white and people who tend to be middle to upper class, the legalizing psychedelic therapy. And you're saying this creates tension then, or there might be tension between that and full legalization of psychedelics, and with the full legalization of psychedelics, the beginning of the renewal and healing process of a lot of the oppressed minorities within our society. So my question would be, because a lot of people who are obviously pushing for first the legalization of psychedelic therapy would argue that it is the most effective way to then have eventual full psychedelic legalization and removing prohibition. Whereas you seem to have a different belief in that. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? Do you think both can be achieved at the same time? Or do you think a one... Do you agree that legalizing psychedelic therapy is the most effective way to a full removal of prohibition and psychedelics?

08:20 JD: That's a very good question. I think it's important to remember that policies, public policies around drugs occupy a wide spectrum. Now, I'm not advocating that we should really push hard for full legalization of psychedelics right now. That is not politically feasible, and I think support for legalizing psychedelics is down around 10%. But what I am talking about, what has a lot more support, is reducing the harms of the criminalization of psychedelics and that's something that should be happening complementary to the medicalization of psychedelics. What I'm talking about is like, for example, what's happened in Portugal. They have not legalized drugs. You can't walk into a store and buy LSD or Psilocybin mushrooms, but what they've done in Portugal and what a lot of other European countries have done and what a lot of jurisdictions in the West are moving towards, is ending arrests for simply for using or possessing a psychedelic drug and also reducing the harms of the criminal justice system also for people who are convicted of selling or producing them, such as sentencing reforms. Right now there's mandatory minimums, where people who are convicted of selling or producing psychedelics can easily get 20-30 years behind bars. Insane sentences, longer than you would get for violent crimes of rape or murder.

10:00 JD: And I see where there's a reticence on the part of the psychedelic research community to talk about policy because they don't want it to go... I would agree with them that really making a huge push for legalization of psychedelics right now would be irresponsible in some ways and that that's not a very pragmatic approach. But what is pragmatic is talking about reducing the role of criminalization. As I said before, if psychedelic therapy is legalized, that does not do anything to change the criminal penalties associated with psychedelics. And right now in the US, there's actually a bipartisan consensus around reducing the role of criminalization in drug policy more broadly, and that's a big focus for the organization I work for, the Drug Policy Alliance, right now. For example, we did some polls in primary states earlier this year, New Hampshire and Maine and South Carolina, and we found that all of those states, even in South Carolina, 60% or more of likely voters, including Republicans, support ending arrests simply for using or possessing any drug, including psychedelics. So I think that is also a very sort of politically practical approach that can happen concurrent to the medicalization of psychedelics.

11:29 JD: And there's been... I think it's worth saying just outright that there have been very powerful forces in the psychedelic research community that are pulling, have from years, and are continuing to pull very powerful strings behind the scenes, making threats and such to ensure that medicalization is the only approach on the table, because they posit it as this sort of binary thing is, "Oh, either it's legalizing psychedelics completely or psychedelic therapy," and it's not, those two things are not the only options. [chuckle] And I would argue that for the psychedelic researchers who are pulling strings behind the scenes to ensure that other options are not on the table, that's both a very unethical approach but it's also not a pragmatic approach. I think that if there's a cohesive politically competent movement that's working to reduce the harms of criminalization of psychedelics, that ultimately helps the research move forward and the fear, the boogeyman that is always sort of put on the table is that, "Oh, if anyone talks about any policy reforms outside of medicalization, there's gonna be a backlash at the FDA, because we have this secret plan, and we're gonna sort of get things through the FDA before they figure out what's really going on."

13:02 JD: And that is just... That is both immoral, I would say, to ignore the people who have lesser privilege, who are currently being harmed by prohibition. But it's also just wrong, firstly, there's so many media stories out there already about psychedelic therapy. There's already media stories starting to come out about legalizing psychedelics all the time. And I think it's really important for people in this movement to get out ahead of that and define the terms of what we want, and ultimately pushing for policy, pragmatic, incremental policy reforms to reduce the harms of psychedelic criminalization will help the research move forward.

13:44 JD: I mean, we saw a very similar dynamic with medical marijuana, actually. The medical research at the federal level with marijuana has been blocked for decades. That's sort of the hidden story behind medical marijuana was. That's why states started legalizing medical marijuana 20 years ago. And it was only earlier this year when the DEA was under enormous pressure to reschedule marijuana, and, of course, they didn't do that, but what they did do is they approved, allowed for federal research to move forward by ending the federal government's monopoly on the supply of federally approved research grade marijuana. So, I mean, science doesn't happen in a vacuum. Science is always subject to a lot of politics. And by creating this cult of psychedelic therapy, ultimately that's going to reduce the political power of our movement, not enhance it.

14:53 PA: That's an interesting perspective. I never myself thought of the two as being mutually exclusive. I had always thought of them working together. We saw that, like you said, with what happened with medical marijuana, is there seemed to be these trends where they fed off each other in terms of when states were starting to legalize medical marijuana, there were even more and more just municipals or counties decriminalizing marijuana use and eventually that would sometimes grow bigger than that. So, then my next question would be, you even mentioned pragmatic steps we can take now, pragmatic steps to end the criminalization of psychedelic substances. Not even worrying now about obviously full legalization, like you said. That's not on the table right now. But these pragmatic steps to end the criminalization of psychedelics, what are those pragmatic steps both for people who are listening at home and also for organizations like yourself who are working pretty hard at, quite hard at doing this?

15:55 JD: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good question. A couple of things in particular. I mean, one is supporting efforts that are underway in the US to decriminalize drugs, because that would have enormous implications for psychedelics. Another thing that I think is really important is working with the institutions where people are most likely to use psychedelics and institutions that employ zero tolerance tactics that lead to arrest of psychedelic users. So, that means places like nightlife venues, working with festivals, working with universities to ensure that they don't have zero tolerance policies that lead to people getting arrested and to people using psychedelics in more dangerous settings, where they can't get educational information and can't get help if they have problems. So, DPA a couple of years ago started something called the safer partying program. And essentially, what that's trying to do is mainstream projects like MAPS's Zendo project.

17:09 JD: MAPS's Zendo project, which I had worked on an earlier incarnation of 10 years ago when I worked at MAPS, goes to festivals and sets up harm reduction services for people who use psychedelics and like to be able to talk to someone about it, or for people who are having problems of like, say, the medical staff or security, come across someone who is having a difficult experience and needs help. Instead of putting them in an ambulance and sending them to ER when they're not actually having a medical emergency or handing them over to the police, which is very often what happens, they can go to a place where there's trained therapists who are able to work with them to help them integrate their experience. And we've had some success the past couple of years in getting bigger event producers to back this approach. Just last month, Insomniac Productions, which is the largest electronic music event production company in the country, for the first time they had worked with us to implement above ground harm reduction services. So, that includes both mental health services, like what Zendo provides. It also includes things like drug checking.

18:35 JD: Drug checking is a very common practice in Europe and other parts of the world. That means pill testing basically where you can get your drugs tested to make sure it's actually what you think it is. And so one of our big priorities over the next few years here too is mainstreaming drug checking and making that part of what event producers are expected to do in the US, and that goes a long way towards reducing a lot of the harms associated with psychedelic use, because of course, under prohibition, there's no way to regulate quality control. You don't have product labeling requirements or licensing requirements for who is selling it. So as long as we have a prohibition system, people are going to be taking substances of unknown purity. And drug checking is one way to get around that and reduce the harms associated with people taking unregulated substances.

19:40 PA: Right, absolutely, and we've been... I've been seeing... And maybe this just might be recency bias, but I've been noticing I think what I perceive as more and more news stories popping up on Twitter and other places where I follow quite a few drug-related and harm-reduction related people as well as like psychedelic, and it's like... There was something that just happened in Australia where I think a bunch of people who were partying took NBOMe 25 instead of LSD because they couldn't get a fix. I remember I was talking with a friend of mine, Brian, at Horizons last month, and he was saying how recently there were ecstasy pills that were tested that had heroin in them. And so this is of course one of the biggest issues of prohibition, like you mentioned, is this sense of you can't measure how dangerous these things are. And it's just so obvious to me, and I think it's so obvious to you that these same... We're seeing these same exact patterns repeat themselves that we noticed from alcohol prohibition in the '20s, where people would make bootstrap stuff at home, and of course it would be very dangerous and people would often die from consuming it. Based on your work and based on what you've done with Drug Policy Alliance and maybe people who you talk to, especially oppositional people, why aren't those patterns so obvious to people outside this sphere, people who don't support the decriminalization of drugs or the legalization of drugs?

21:07 JD: Yeah, I mean, I think that speaks to the need still to sort of really change the debate about how psychedelics are perceived in our society. Despite all of the great press and attention that the medical research has got over the past few years, that hasn't changed the fundamental myths that I think the general public still has about psychedelics. Since I work on communications, I do a lot of work on messaging research, and a recent messaging research project we did found that only 16, one six, percent of the electorate in the US thinks that psychedelics can be used safely in moderation. That was only very slightly above methamphetamine, crack cocaine, heroin.

22:00 JD: So despite that more people are hearing about the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, most people still in the general public perceive them as being dangerous, and much more dangerous than they are. And of course, that's the same thing... That's why psychedelics are in the same boat, in many ways, as other drugs that have been caught up in the drug war, where even with drugs like... The truth is, actually, with heroin, methamphetamine, crack cocaine, more than 80% of people who try those substances do not go on to become addicted and do not go on to have problems with them. That's according to the federal government's own survey data. And I think it's a similar situation with psychedelics, where prohibition and the drug war have... Big reason that it's been able to succeed is because it's so easy to scare people about drugs, especially when they don't know someone who has used that drug or know that they know someone who has used that drug. So...

23:13 PA: Well, and you had... I'm gonna pick up on that because you had mentioned this in your talk at Horizons, I was just re-watching and you had mentioned what are ways that we can... I forget the exact topic that you were addressing, but something about ending criminalization of psychedelics or looking further to psychedelic legalization, and you mentioned probably the number one thing people can do in many ways, or one of the things that people can do is coming out of the psychedelic closet, because like you just mentioned, a lot of people don't know that they actually know people who have used psychedelics, because no one will go out and talk about it because of the stigma that's attached to it.

23:48 JD: Yeah, yeah, that's a big part of... That's why marijuana has been so much easier to do policy reform around, and that about 50% of US adults have used it. So everyone... People just at a certain point stopped believing the sort of reefer madness stories that you hear about marijuana, that it's gonna make you go crazy or make you violent. But with psychedelics, I think it's more around 10% of the population who have used them. So it's not gonna be as easy to change people's minds about psychedelics. And so for people who are in a position where they feel safe to talk about their experiences, that's a very important way to change the perception of them. But I think it's also really important to acknowledge that not everyone can come out of the closet, so to speak. People who have criminal records, people who have children, people who have certain jobs that could be endangered are not able to come out of the closet. So that really puts the emphasis, I think, even more so on people who are in a privileged enough position who can speak out about their use of psychedelics.

25:07 JD: But I think it's also important to do that in a nuanced way. I think you have to be gentle with people, and I think sometimes when I see people in a well-meaning way coming out of the closet about psychedelics, it can only serve to reinforce some of the negative stereotypes that people have about them. So I think it's very important to... If you're going to come out of the closet to really not be didactic about it and not beat people over the head with it, but to really meet people where they're at and to be nuanced about it, and not sort of absolutist, 'cause psychedelics are not for everyone. And I think it's important to acknowledge that, and I think if... That was part of the the fear back in the Timothy Leary days is that, "Oh, everyone should do psychedelics." And that's not the case. Some people... But the important thing is that whether you love psychedelics, or whether you hate psychedelics, or whether you don't care about psychedelics, getting people to agree that prohibiting them is not the right approach.

26:28 PA: And then it seems like that is complicated. That is made more challenging, like you mentioned, because of the discrepancy between marijuana users and psychedelic users. So whereas 50, like you just mentioned 50, would be some now upwards of 60% of people have tried marijuana at some point in their life, it's only 10% of psychedelic users, or 10% of people who have used psychedelics. And so one thing that I often think about when I'm thinking about the same exact thing, in terms of eventual full, possible full legalization, 10, 15, 20 years down the road, it's probably not gonna go up that much, meaning there's gonna be about 10% of people, probably consistently that could go up to 11 or 12, who knows, over the next few years who use psychedelics. And that could even raise higher depending on when psychedelic therapy is improved, but it will never be at the level of marijuana. I feel fairly confident in saying that.

27:22 PA: But I think with the psychedelic experience, we, the people who end up often going through this experience, it ends up being such a transformative event for them. It ends up being this oftentimes, this magnificent, kind of mysterious awe-inspiring event when they take LSD for the first time, or mushrooms or whatever it might be. And from my perspective that seems to carry a lot of weight then with how they then live out the rest of their life. Whereas most people who smoke marijuana, they smoke it, it's like, "Cool. I got high. I giggled a bunch and I got the munchies. And that was nice because I ate a whole pizza. And I've never done that before." Right? And you have those type of people, but you're not... It's not to the same degree transformative. And so my question would be, is this fact that only 10% of people have done it, is that going to be preventative? Or do you think that because the psychedelic experience, people hold it so dearly, and to so much value, that even though it's a small minority of use that they'll carry a really large torch when it comes to advocacy and other things?

28:32 JD: Yeah, I think it depends on the effectiveness of our movement as communicators. We were talking earlier about Portugal and how they have decriminalized all drugs. And one of the assumptions that people always have is that, if the laws are changed to make them less punitive that more people will use a certain substance. And that is basically a myth. Even in Colorado, where marijuana has been fully legalized now for four years, use has not gone up. So the idea that we need to... That there's any correlation between the illegality of a substance and the level of use is, it's kind of counterintuitive, but there's definitely not a link there. And so yeah, I don't think psychedelics are ever going to be something that are used by the majority of the population. And I think, that's fine. I think it's all about the context in which they're used. And I don't think... I think this probably goes... Probably a lot of your listeners would disagree with me, but I would say that psychedelics don't have any sort of inherent values associated with them, and that we can't entirely leave the cultural context in which we're using them.

30:07 JD: Before I got into drug policy, I was an anthropologist, and I spent a lot of time studying cross-cultural applications of altered states of consciousness, including psychedelics, and what you find, looking at historical uses of psychedelics in other societies, is that generally they're not used to oppose the social order or to transcend the social order. But in fact, they're actually used to reinforce social hierarchy and reinforce the social order, which oftentimes is not necessarily a good thing. The classic example, you may have heard before is, the Vikings in medieval times, in Europe, they would eat amanita muscaria mushrooms before going into battle and raiding and pillaging villages. And it would give them the altered state of consciousness they needed to transcend that.

31:08 JD: So I mean, you think about... If psychedelics were really integrated into the social order of our society, that actually could be kind of scary. I mean, could you imagine if LSD was used as part of the initiation soldiers go through at boot camp? That might not be... I don't think they would have sort of transcendent spiritual experiences that would make them more peaceful people. It would only serve to reinforce the cultural framework that they're already part of. So I think it's important to realize how our understanding of these substances is so dependent upon the culture that we're in and the framework that we're bringing to it.

31:58 PA: And then we changed that culture, like you're saying, through communication, but it can't then just be... For changing culture, it can't just be only about communication specific to psychedelic substances. It has to be communications about other things that maybe bring healing or some type of self-healing to individuals. Now, I wanna get back, though, to the point that you mentioned, this idea psychedelics don't have inherent values in themselves, because you bring up an interesting point in terms of that altered states of consciousness which are brought on by psychedelics can be used to reinforce very negative things as well as in many cases, positive things, but they can be used to reinforce negative things.

32:37 PA: With some of the research that they've done at Johns Hopkins with Psilocybin, and Psilocybin and the mystical state. And showing that, Roland presented on this at Horizons. He also... Roland Griffiths, who's the lead researcher doing the work with Psilocybin at Johns Hopkins. Presented on this at Horizons as well as, I think, in Prague, the same presentation, talking about how it initiates this mystical experience, or it can, and because... A result of that, people are more altruistic, people are more accepting. Katherine MacLean did a study about how psychedelics create more openness in people. How does that juxtapose with your assertion that if psychedelics were integrated in the social order that they could be also used for bad? In other words, do certain cultural changes need to happen before we see the use of psychedelics initiate more openness and initiate acceptance and initiate all these other benefits that some of these researchers have noticed within specific contextual settings?

33:36 JD: Yeah, that's a really good question. My guess would be that the experience that came out of it was related to some degree to the methodology involved when someone goes into that setting knowing that they're part of a study on mystical experience or openness and they're doing it in a setting that is intended to provoke those sorts of experiences. Yes, it's more likely to happen. There's Stanislav Grof, what's the phrase he uses to describe psychedelics? It's a non-specific amplifier of the unconscious.

34:13 PA: I think that sounds about right.

34:17 JD: However you think of it. And so actually, I just saw Katherine MacLean talk last night in New York on a really interesting panel about psychedelics and race, and she was talking about how the lack of diversity in the participants in their studies, for example, Baltimore is 64% black, but less than 10% of or some very, very small percentage of the subjects in the study were actually, were black and that it was generally upper middle class white people who are spiritual but not religious, and so picked apart those studies in depth. But I would guess that the results have as much to do with the methodology as with the specific substance itself. Yeah.

35:15 PA: And so I'll continue that question then. So how do we go about changing culture by communication so that there could be more of a framework, so that psychedelics do have the maybe... We can spread these benefits farther and wider, so to say. Are there things that need to happen on a cultural level? Obviously we're seeing some of those right now, with more and more people getting into mindfulness meditation. More and more people getting into yoga. People who are eating vegetarian, getting away from factory farming. What else do you think needs to happen to make that a reality?

35:49 JD: Well, now we're getting into really big stuff, here because you can say, yeah, more people are meditating, but is the country becoming more open? Look at what just happened in the past election where you have the majority, a vast majority of white people in the country voting for an openly racist, misogynistic person.

36:15 PA: That's a really good point yeah, and I think that was surprising for a lot of us, 'cause based on some of our intuitions we assumed that there was going to be this constant liberalization, especially in the United States, with all these marijuana legalization laws starting to pass. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled gay rights, the right to marry for gay people. We were seeing all these liberal policies, then all of a sudden it was like a... I think that's why it was so shocking for so many, is Donald Trump gets elected. And so that's interesting that you bring that up, and I would wonder about that, what are your thoughts on that specific to what you were just mentioning in terms of... Are we becoming a more open society and culturally, what just went on?

37:03 JD: Yeah, well, that makes me think back to the debate going on in the '60s. Were psychedelics somewhat responsible for the political radicalization that happened? What was the connection there? And I think it's important to realize that psychedelics and mindfulness meditation and all of these things don't necessarily change the fundamental power dynamics in our society, and that is a very different struggle, and I think... I guess you can say it shows us that the need for people who care about psychedelics, and for whom they're meaningful, to think of it as a political act. I think that a lot of people who use psychedelics don't necessarily think of themselves as political people or see themselves above all that. Politics is just kinda fucked, for lack of a better word. And we're just gonna create this entire new different reality, this utopia.

38:14 JD: But I think it's incumbent upon us to take responsibility for the harms of the drug war, for people who use psychedelics, because we can't escape the reality that we're living in now. And the past election was interesting because on the one hand, we had our greatest success ever on drug policy reform. The DPA worked on nine different ballot initiatives around the country, we legalized marijuana in four new states and so this is the interesting part, four other states passed medical marijuana that also voted Republican. So Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana, which all voted for Mango Mussolini, our president, [laughter] they also all supported medical marijuana overwhelmingly; in fact, in Florida, most counties voted for Trump, but every single county in Florida voted in favor of medical marijuana.

39:23 JD: So I think that shows how we need to move beyond simply, on the one hand, it's great that these issues sort of transcend partisanship, and that's the result of a lot of careful political work over the years to build support from lots of people with diverse ideologies, but also at the same time it shows how accepting marijuana or accepting psychedelics does not necessarily make people more politically open-minded or more politically liberal. And a big part of the struggle for us now is not just making sure that marijuana gets legalized and taken outside of the criminal justice system, but in how it's done.

40:17 JD: I was particularly proud of our work in California because for the first time in California this year, the legalization law was written in a way that really focused on reparative justice. So for example, the tax revenue, it's getting re-invested in communities that have been worst harmed by prohibition, and people with felonies for producing or selling marijuana are not locked out of the legal system, as we have this situation that's been pointed out many times where most of, all of the states that have legalized medical marijuana, and all of the first few US states that legalized marijuana, it created a lot of barriers to entry into the market. Where you have this dynamic where black people are still getting arrested and put in prison for doing the same thing that rich white people from Wall Street are coming in and getting rich off of. And it's in some ways replicating the racial caste system that we're already living in, and so I think it's really important as marijuana legalization plays out in more states or that it's done in a way that is ethical and inclusive of people who have been most harmed by prohibition, just as it is with psychedelics, it's the same principle.

41:51 JD: Yeah, so we have our work cut out for us. It's not clear yet whether the new administration is going to push back on the state of marijuana laws. Actually a majority of Republicans, voters and polls say that they support states being able to set their own marijuana laws. So I think that is something that is, we have a good chance to fight back on that. But on the other hand, the people being potentially named to the cabinet, people like Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, have been, not just neutral on marijuana legalization, they have been vehement opponents of it. And then when it comes to sort of broader criminal justice issues, we really have our work cut out for us. Polling and political momentum over the past 10... Past few years has gone dramatically in favor of reducing the role of criminalization and drug policy. But what you have, what Trump was elected on, part of his platform was expanding the role of criminalization in society. And he's saying things like, "Oh, we need to... The way to stop the heroin crisis, is by building a wall," which of course is wrong-headed on so many levels I won't even... [chuckle] I won't even pick that one apart.

43:15 JD: But I think we have to keep our guard up over the next few years. It could be very easy for... To... Drugs are always used as a scapegoat for these other things. That was a big part of how the war on drugs gained acceptance both under Richard Nixon, and then again under, with Ronald Reagan, is blaming crime [43:39] ____ odds on drugs as a scapegoat to distract from the fact that certain groups in our society are being systematically selected and that the social safety net is being pulled out from them, and that their economic opportunities are being pulled out from them. You look at when the war on drugs was ramped up into the most extreme way in the mid-1980s was exactly the time when cities were being de-industrialized, people were losing jobs, the social safety net was being cut back.

44:12 JD: So, I wouldn't be surprised if over the next few years there's a similar attempt because, like I said, you know, on the one hand people are generally in favor of reducing the role of criminalization, but then at the same time these myths and the stigma associated with drugs, both psychedelics, but also things like heroin and crack, are still fundamentally there, and the myths and stigma associated with the people who use those substances are still there. I would highly recommend for anyone who is interested in sort of the roots of drug policy more generally and the science behind it to look at the work of Dr. Carl Hart. He's on DPA's board and he's actually the first black tenured scientists at Columbia University, which is pretty mind-boggling that only recently they got their first black tenured scientist, but he talks a lot about how the problems that we associate with drugs like crack and heroin are really rooted in the social circumstances in which they're being used. And once you tease apart the social circumstances, you see that the harms and the sort of things that we take for granted about these drugs are not necessarily true, that when people are in an economically privileged situation and use these substances, they don't end up having those same problems.

45:47 JD: And it's really our sort of socioeconomic system that is at the root of the problem and not the drugs themselves. The drugs are just the scapegoat. He wrote a really excellent memoir a couple years ago called High Price that is a great story of his experience growing up in Miami, which is where I grew up in the '80s and '90s as the drug war was being ramped up, that weaves in the science of drugs throughout the book in a really brilliant way. He also has TED talks and stuff online, so I highly recommend his work.

46:28 PA: You said the name of that is High Christ?

46:29 JD: Sorry, High Price.

46:31 PA: High Price, okay, I might... Maybe I'm just high or something. I thought I heard High Christ, the High Price. Okay.

46:40 JD: Either way, it's a good pun.

46:43 PA: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

46:44 JD: Double entendre or whatever.

46:47 PA: Exactly. So and kind of, and what I'm hearing in this conversation of yours, you're drawing parallels obviously between the Nixon administration, Reagan administration and quite possibly what may have during the Trump administration as these things are... The Cabinet members are appointed and as we're understanding more and more who's going to be making maybe decisions at a higher policy level in the federal government. Yet, yet, there are obviously differences between the world we live in now and the world that was Reagan's world and the world that was Nixon's world. What do you see are those differences and do those impact the likelihood of going through a similar process or not or not going through a similar process, for that matter?

47:31 JD: Yeah, I think the danger is really there, because on the one hand, you still have, like I said, all these myths and stigma associated with drugs and people who use them, and then at the same time, the economic situation in this country is even more dire than it was under Nixon and Reagan, and you have huge swaths of the population that are in desperate circumstances and it's very easy in those situations to scapegoat things. Right now, you have a lot of the white people in this country scapegoating immigrants and scapegoating "terrorists," foreign Muslim immigrants for all of these structural problems in our society that are the results of neo-liberalism, and so the ingredients are all there for another big drug scare. So I mean, what we do have going for us is people's understanding of mass incarceration, I mean, 5-10 years ago, you would never hear a politician or sort of a mainstream journalist even use that term, mass incarceration, where now you do have majorities of the public, including even majorities of Republicans, who agree that mass incarceration is a problem.

49:02 JD: Now of course, Republicans think it's a problem for the wrong reasons. They think it's a problem simply because it's impractical and too expensive, but we still have racial caste system in our society, and we have more people who are considered expendable than ever. And what we've seen over the past 10 years is that the drug war has expanded to also suck in a lot of poor white people into the system in rural America. And so the ingredients are there for another drug scare, and I think we have to really be on guard and it's more incumbent than ever for us to really debunk the fears that people have about drugs and people who use them.

49:51 PA: And then thankfully we live in an age now where information is much more available, whereas in the past I think one big differentiation between now and the '60s and '80s is in the '60s and '80s, the government really controlled the flow of information. And they had much more of a stranglehold on who was learning what, especially when it came to drug education, when it came to advertising on TV, there was a much more centralized aspect of propaganda, of misinformation to encourage people to think one way and, of course, now with the Internet, people typically get their news from many, many different sources or their information from many, many different sources that are not as controlled.

50:34 PA: Obviously, that also comes with backlash, as we saw with a lot of the articles about how Trump won the election because of Facebook and fake news and all this other, so there is a con to that as well, but it seems to open certain doors that I'm hopeful will create enough resilience on a grassroots and community-oriented level that even if certain things happen on the federal level, it will have hopefully little to no impact. Now, that just might be optimism, but I'm just hopeful with some of the things that have happened with legalizing marijuana in 8 states now with medical marijuana and... How many states have medical marijuana now?

51:11 JD: 28 now.

51:13 PA: 28 have medical marijuana and 8 have legalized, plus the District of Columbia, I believe. Okay. And so, with that, I'm hoping a certain level of resilience is built. And it seems to be then representative of a larger society-wide shift, but we're seeing more divisiveness than ever before between the powers that be, establishment powers, even the powers that have been recently been elected and people who, for example, 70% of people in Florida supported medical marijuana, and obviously 60% of people supported legal marijuana in California. There seems to be this sense of divisiveness and this is just an observation, to say that it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the next four years, especially specific to what we're talking about with drug decriminalization and minimizing the harms of the ongoing drug war.

52:04 PA: Yeah, and then just one last question, I'm trying to ask everyone this at the end of the podcast interviews that I'm doing, and that is, for you, what do you see as the most important aspect in this case, in ending the decriminalization of psychedelic substances, like the number one thing that you can think of?

52:26 JD: Well, I think the most important thing is focusing on reparative justice and repairing the harms of prohibition, sort of like a truth and reconciliation. Any time there have been enormous harms to a society of a public policy, it's important to create a new model but it's also important to atone and acknowledge the harms that have historically happened and especially considering that those harms have disproportionately fallen on people who are less privileged in our society, people who are not white people, who are not as well-off. So I think it's really incumbent on us as we create this new model for psychedelic policy to do it in a way that prioritizes social justice and ensures that the new policies we're creating are not another extension of white privilege that perpetuate the power dynamics in our society.

53:38 JD: Even if psychedelic therapy becomes legalized, people in marginalized communities are still going to be getting arrested and handcuffed and branded as criminals for life, simply for using them, while wealthy mostly white people are using them for therapy. So we need to think these things through ahead of time and ensure that we build a world and a new policy that reflects our values. And I think where we're on the right track and the conversation is starting, but we have a long way to go.

54:18 PA: Yeah, I think you're right. And that's part of accepting the challenge that is ahead is there is a long way to go. And I think understanding that and then working with that, that's something that I've as well thought about, it's gonna be many, many years and these things don't happen quickly. So having that patience and perseverance, I think, is important for those of us who are fighting for reparative justice or fighting for a more just world that we live in, that has more equality, that's more egalitarian, that's more accepting, all of these things, reduces suffering. Yeah, I am 100% with you on that. And I think that also was a nice way to cap this conversation, because our topics have ranged far and wide and it's actually been a nice intellectual exercise. And just a real pleasure to talk to you, Jag. So anything, any other final words that you wanna say either about what you guys are doing at Drug Policy Alliance, specific to either psychedelics or in general?

55:19 JD: Yeah, I would just say check our website, it's drugpolicy.org and you can follow us on social media. And, yeah, we're starting to... Historically, we haven't singled out psychedelics a lot, because that's not really politically pragmatic, but it's important to realize that all of the things we're already working on, ending the criminalization of the use of psychedelics and sentencing reform to reduce amount of people being sent to prison for ridiculous amounts of time because of drugs, that all of those things would have enormous implications for psychedelics. And yeah, I think it's important for people who care about psychedelics to understand the context of the wider drug war and to work to combat the myths and stigma, not just around psychedelics but around other drugs as well. And ultimately, that's going to make our movement more sustainable and stronger.

56:33 PA: Great, and those are some great last words, Jag. So again, this is Jag Davies, Director of Communication Strategy at Drug Policy Alliance, so you guys can see what DPA is doing at drugpolicy.org. And again, thanks so much for coming on the show, Jag.

56:48 JD: My pleasure. I really appreciate it, thanks for having me.

56:52 PA: Thanks for listening to the Psychedelia Podcast with Paul Austin. Want more psychedelic information? Go to our website at thethirdwave.co and register for our email list and newsletter. Also please consider donating to Third Wave via our Patreon page. Donations make this podcast possible. Psychedelics have the potential to transform lives. By donating you enable us to continue to inform people about the benefits of these powerful substances.

Related Podcasts